Within the past week, I watched two movies that could hardly be more different if they tried, unless you want to consider that they both featured Best Actor Academy Award winners: Knowing, with Nicolas Cage, and Milk, starring Sean Penn (who, in addition to the Oscar he won for Mystic River, picked up one for this, too).
Now, Nicolas Cage has taken a lot of heat for the roles he's played since winning Best Actor for Leaving Las Vegas. A quick sampling: The Rock, Con Air, City of Angels, The Wicker Man, and Ghost Rider. All pretty bad movies that he wasn't particularly good in. In fairness, he was actually really good in Adaptation, and he also made a movie called The Weather Man which was OK.
But if you have a chance, take a look at the size of Cage's filmography: a fairly whopping 62 credited actor roles according to IMDB, 24 or so of those since winning the Oscar; another dozen producer credits. Now, maybe he isn't doing that much to earn those producer credits, but the point is obvious: the man works. Even if he's sold his soul and makes crap now.
The great underground film critic Vern said that he didn't really like Knowing until he realized how crazy and subversive it was, especially for PG-13 mainstream Hollywood movie. Now, I have to say I didn't really like it at all, but I agree about the crazy and subversive part: this movie has the balls to go for one of the battiest climaxes you'll ever see in a big-budget star vehicle, and deserves quite a few kudos for that.
The plot concerns a time capsule that's buried in front of an elementary school and then dug up 50 years later. It turns out that one of the items in the time capsule, put in by this creepy little sad-eyed girl, is a sheet of paper covered entirely with what appear to be random numbers. Except that when they open the capsule and Nicolas Cage's kid gets that piece of paper, he realizes that numbers aren't random at all: they actually predicted every major disaster of the previous fifty years. We learn this because even though Nicolas Cage guzzles whiskey by the glass he manages to stay up all night and crack the code without passing out.
(If I seem a little like a smart-ass for saying 'Nicolas Cage' all the time instead of the character's name, it's because I don't remember the character's name - John -something - which is kind of an indictment of the movie, to be honest. But also, it doesn't really matter what the character's name is, does it?)
I don't want give the ending away because it's not nice, and besides, this post is dragging on and I haven't even gotten to Milk yet - but let's just say, that where a lot of S-F movies with this high of a concept might lose their nerve and decide to play all ambiguous at the end and cop out, Knowing definitely does not cop out. It goes absolutely for broke, and whether or not you're laughing (or kind of smirking, in my case) at the alien angels and bunny rabbits and floating rocks at the end is up to you, but you can't deny that they went for it. And I think that's kind of good. Where a lot of movies might've pulled some deus ex machina trick of an ending to totally knock the movie off the track it clearly has been heading in for its entire running time, Knowing doesn't. You might say it skips the machina and gives you the straight-up deus.
Onto the other half of one of the weirdest double-bills ever, we have Gus Van Sant's Academy Award-winning biopic Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected in the United States. I only feel a little bad for saying that I was afraid at first that the movie was going to be too gay for me.
Too gay as in, too gay. It's not especially graphic, but there's a good bit of kissing in the beginning, and speaking of going for it, Sean Penn and James Franco did--they don't even use stand ins or lighting / camera tricks, it's all pretty up front.
Now I realize that it sounds petty and homophobic and mean to call out a movie for guys kissing guys, and maybe what I'm about to say sounds like a denial of a closet case, but sorry, I just don't roll that way. Make of that what you will, but I know what it means. Men kissing men is just not something I'm used to seeing but I think it's OK because I was able to get over it and finish the movie, even if my squeamishness returned briefly during some shadowy nude wrestling later on.
I don't like it, it kind of grosses me out, really - but psst, there's gay sex probably going on within a mile radius of where you're sitting right now, like it or not.
And homosexuality doesn't offend me nearly half as much--nearly a third as much, or a tenth as much, really -- as people who try to tell other people how to live. Now that I fucking outright hate. I could actually hold up a sign and demonstrate against that. Homosexuality? A mild distaste. A little skeeviness. Slight turning of the stomach, based on how flamboyant it is. That's it.
Consenting adults ought to be able to do whatever the hell they want to do behind closed doors, as long as it's not hurting anyone. Let 'em make love to dogs, for all I care (well, unless the dogs don't want to). That's just the way it should be, and there isn't a right-thinking person in the entire world who feels differently.
Now, about this movie Milk - Sean Penn really was great in it. I'm not that familiar with the real Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, but this is certainly a very different Sean Penn from any I've seen before. In last year's Best Actor race I was kind of in favor of Mickey Rourke over Penn because I thought his win would make a better story--Rourke was a guy who had flushed a once-promising career completely down the toilet, and here he was, up for an Oscar. But I have to admit, having seen both The Wrestler and Milk now, I think Penn was better.
And after awhile in the movie, a funny thing happened: I didn't really care that it was about homosexuals. It was just about people who fought for a just cause, and even though it was pretty much based in fact, I found myself rooting for Milk and his friends to defeat the proposition against gays (or whatever the hell it was, I wasn't exactly clear -- but it doesn't really matter).
And they did, which makes it an even better story, but Milk did wind up dead, too, shot by some closet case of a fellow politician, and the coda of the film, after his death, is actually pretty moving.
But I started to wonder, though: how come all of the gay parts in Hollywood (or just about all) are played by straight actors?
There's considerable impirical evidence that Sean Penn is straight, and I'm pretty sure that James Franco is too. Now both the director (Gus Van Sant) and writer (Dustin Lance Black) are acutally gay in real life, but the guys portraying the two main 'gay' roles actually aren't.
I wonder if gay people mind that?
There really seems to have been a turning in America lately. Just a couple of decades ago, it was big news when someone came out of the closet. It was big news when it turned out that Rock Hudson was gay. It was big news when Ellen DeGeneres came out, too.
But now? Doogie Howser, MD came out of the closet - Neil Patrick Harris - I pretty much think that the general consensus was OK, whatever. American Idol had this pretty-openly-gay-without-actually-saying-it runner up Adam Lambert (who finally did say it, actually) and it wasn't a big deal at all.
Now, I know there are still plenty of gays out there who haven't come out, and won't, because they're afraid to--there's a significant scene about that very issue in Milk--but in general, this seemingly collective shrug, at least by the majority of America, suggests a pretty big turning in the country--and one that, if actually laid out and examined on a timeline, has come up pretty quickly. It means people are generally more open-minded than they were twenty years ago, and if this keeps up, we might have weeded out just about all prejudice (or at least the really nasty ones) in the gene pool within the next forty or sixty years.
Yeah, OK, probably not. But there's hope. And like they said in The Shawshank Redemption, hope is a good thing.